Thursday, October 17, 2013

What should a student do when a PI leaves an institution on bad terms?

A good (if unfortunate) question from the inbox:
Have you ever considered writing a post about how to handle a situation where a postdoc/grad student's PI leaves an institute on bad terms? I've been scouring different chemistry forums for tips regarding this type of situation and while I've noticed lots of people have advice for young investigators transitioning between labs, I haven't been finding many tips on how to navigate a new job search when one's PI is burning bridges.  
To be honest, I don't have any great advice here. The most immediate example I can think of is when a PI is not granted tenure; obviously, the students/postdocs are affected negatively. Hopefully, 1) their PI is supportive when it comes time to letter writing and 2) other references are well-informed enough of the situation that they can separate the PI's actions from the student's qualifications and accomplishments.

So, there's my advice: try to make sure that you have other people who will go to bat for you and that your other letter writers are aware of your accomplishments.

That's not very helpful advice. Readers, I'm sure you can do better. 

23 comments:

  1. Well, you could follow the PI. This especially works well if the PI is moving to a more prestigious institution. Its all about name recognition these days.

    The PI's crappy rep should not interefere with how other PI's think about you. Most people in academic science know that PI's can be total jerks and their behavior really is no reflection about you as the lab worker. Unfortunately, other PI's tend to judge you on your publication record, which they hold you solely responsible for, which is mostly unfair.

    Might be a good opportunity to drop out of science. Probably what I should have done when my PI quit tenure track to do pottery when I was a grad student. But I was a science sheeple and found someone else to work for *sigh*

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  2. CJ's advice strikes me as good advice - try to cultivate as many relationships as possible. My grad institution put in place rules so that each Ph.D. student has a committee which they report to on a routine basis. This helps the students from being so isolated.

    Often when this happens, the student follows the PI but this does get awkward when you're very close to finishing.

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  3. This happened to me. I was in my third year of grad school when my advisor was denied tenure. She decided to leave academia, so transferring to another university with her wasn't an option. Initially, there were promises that I would be able to finish an MS, as a sort of consolation prize. No one else in the department wanted to be involved with that though. I ended up writing a thesis that no one would read.

    Ultimately, I took six months off to de-stress and regroup. I transferred to a different university, using references from undergrad, since none of the profs at my first grad school could be bothered. All my coursework transferred, which was great. Starting over in research was rough, but not a deal-breaker for me.

    I don't have any advice. The only thing I would do differently would be to leave my first grad school immediately, instead of sticking around and wasting time and effort on a MS that I didn't even want.

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  4. This happened to me. I was in my third year of grad school when my advisor was denied tenure. She decided to leave academia, so transferring to another university with her wasn't an option. Initially, there were promises that I would be able to finish an MS, as a sort of consolation prize. No one else in the department wanted to be involved with that though. I ended up writing a thesis that no one would read.

    Ultimately, I took six months off to de-stress and regroup. I transferred to a different university, using references from undergrad, since none of the profs at my first grad school could be bothered. All my coursework transferred, which was great. Starting over in research was rough, but not a deal-breaker for me.

    I don't have any advice. The only thing I would do differently would be to leave my first grad school immediately, instead of sticking around and wasting time and effort on a MS that I didn't even want.

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  5. CJ: Not long back I was reading about this person who maintained website to narrate the bad things that happened to him. while he was a Ph.D student @ Scripps with Prof. Reza Ghadiri. The dude who maintained this site was brutal on him. While the professor (PI) stayed back at Scripps, this fella quit on him. Hope something worked out for him!

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    1. Yeah, I remember that. That guy would link constantly to Chemistry Blog. Also, there was a dude who hated Danishefsky who would keep posting there about MSKCC.

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    2. I'd love to hear what this guy's PhD story is:

      http://phdscam.wordpress.com/

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    3. NMH...http://rezaghadiri.net/welcome-to-the-reza-ghadiri-project/

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    4. That Reza Ghadiri site was legendary, even if the author always seemed like a flaming narcissist to me. I try not to think about it as I'm now going to various interviews. But if someone gives me a job as a PI, I'll definitely keep it in mind and try to avoid 'Journal of Uncle Sam's desk' situations.

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    5. Im surprised that Reza hasn't sicked the lawyers on this guy to shut down the site.

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    6. The guy who hated Danishefsky was the only interesting poster on Chemistry Blog. They should have recruited him to be a regular contributor.

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    7. That dude would get frighteningly personal.

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    8. Link, please, if possible (for specific Danishefsky comments, so I compare my experience to his/hers).

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    9. I didn't dig very far, but here's a good example: http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2008/06/18/danishefsky-rebek/

      Basically if you Google "site:chemistry-blog.com danishefsky", you should get all you want.

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    10. A lot of those comments are literally, unreadable. When you want to destroy the reputation a well-known member of the chemistry community, as well as be successful in many other professions and aspects of life, it helps to be articulate.

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    11. Wow. That's the sort of narrative that you hear crazed hobos yell outside of subway stations.

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    12. And yet I understand exactly why you would write crazed comments. Having just come or of a situation like that myself. I wish that writing public comments, even 'anonymous' ones, wouldn't have a strong chance of damaging what's left of my career.

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    13. I had such a horrible post-doc experience I was considering 1.) breaking and entering my advisor's office with a credit card, and 2.) bugging the conference room after I left. I did look for a bugging device but it was too expensive.....

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  6. This is why you need to get to know the other profs in your division/area in grad school and have a good working relationship with them and their groups. These profs will be your committee members, and if you get to know they, they can go to bat for you if your PI bails. This is also why its good to have senior profs on your committee, as they will have more clout and can help with things go sour.

    You will need letters from them later anyways when you are applying for postdocs or faculty positions. I am sure that my committee members letter was a significant part of what got me my present job.

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  7. I can really sympathise with your situation - it happened to me and it is still ongoing (not yet a PhD) so I haven't got a success story to tell. I know it can be a bit awkward when your PI has severed all ties with your institution.

    I am assuming that you are not asking for tips for the continuation of your doctoral programme at your old or your PI's new institution. I take it that you have ensured.been assured that there will be lab space as well as resources in terms of equipment and funding to carry on should you have chosen to stay. (I can elaborate on those points too if you wish). In terms of navigating a job search I know it can be tricky given your PI's relationship with the old institution and I can only draw on my experience (not really an advice - I haven't graduated yet!!):

    I took the time to research into my institution and my faculty's responsibility towards me as fee-paying student. I am sure there is a certain duty of support at your old/new institution too, to assign you with a new PI (for safety and any day-to-day issues), review your doctoral thesis submission deadline, etc. Staying behind can be as difficult as moving though I find, in my final year I found myself treated very much like a 'visiting student' on 'borrowed time' where I am still based.

    As a finalist I stayed behind with my PI's blessings so to speak, and I still make a conscious effect to maintain a good relationship with him regardless of the political mess he is still in with the faculty; so having a letter of recommendation at the end should be ok. I have been assigned a new PI and I took the time to establish a good working relationship with him too, although he doesn't work in my field, and made him quite aware of any situations where I have been placed in the middle of the institution and my PI. He has indicated that he will be happy to write reference letters. My thesis committee was also made aware of the move, implications of the ongoing disagreement between PI and faculty, and the impact it has on my work, in case I need more support in the future.

    The most unexpected support, arguably the best, actually came from retired professors in my faculty. I approached a fair few of them and given their experience in the institution they gave the best and most pragmatic advice and suggestions with my well-being in mind, a lot better than any members of the registry office that I have spoken to. One even offered financial support (!) I don't know if you are acquainted with any senior academics but I really think they will be able to give good pointers on how to cope, how to avoid a political situation, and job hunting afterwards.

    Hopefully as a member of a professional organisation (ACS) you may be able to get more career advice on requesting references and job hunting in general.

    I am sorry this is all a bit vague but feel free to fire away some questions and I will reply to them. I can't say I am the best case study to draw parallels on but I know how you feel. Good luck!!

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  8. I was involved in a move as a post-doc. I went with the prof to a more prestigious institution, but there were some grad students who stayed behind and either finished up their MS, PhD, switched labs within the school. My advice would be to recognize the risks of joining the lab of a tenure track prof in his/her third or 4th year at the school. Do as much research about them as possible to find out if they are likely to get tenure or not.

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  9. My original PhD advisor moved to a less prestigious university after my second year in grad school. (Was a good move for him because he got lots of $$ and some other perks.) I waffled for a while on what to do, but, ultimately decided to stay at Northwestern. (My first advisor moved the lab the weekend I got married ... I had a life in Chicago.) I was fortunate in that I had a working collaboration with another group and there was an understandable transition that I could make. In hindsight, I should have done more to interact with other groups and other PIs earlier in my PhD. This is good practice for anyone, as one of the commenters above has noted. I ended up OK after the move and change of PI. But, I was lucky.
    The advice is that, as a grad student, you need to be talking science with lots of people (faculty members) and not just with those inside of your group. Build relationships. This will help you greatly throughout your entire career.

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  10. First, if it is a surprise that your PI does not get tenure and leaves, the problem hasn't been approached correctly from the beginning. The tenure/(or not) contingency needs to be factored into your graduate career when you decide to take up roost under a junior faculty member. So, for those reading this, ask around and make a plan.

    If you are caught off guard, you basically have 4 routes:
    1) Quit
    2) Find a faculty member to help you finish your dissertation, perhaps with your old PI as a remote assist.
    3) Switch to the lower degree track (Consolation prize masters)
    4) Start a new dissertation.

    Option 2 is obviously preferable, but in small or overly political departments may not work out because no one will be equipped to meaningfully take you on. That leaves option 3, which should let you get out the door with something (the departing prof should have 9-12 months left before leaving). Starting over again may be viable for 1st or 2nd years, but is going to be a world of hurt for a student who already has a moving project... everyone I have seen try that has ended up just quitting.

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